Rumsfeld wins the backing of Uzbekistan

War on Terrorism: Diplomacy
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Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, yesterday won the backing of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan and whose leader rules with traditional authoritarian methods.

President Islam Karimov has been challenged in the past two years by religious extremists linked to Osama bin Laden and backed by the Taliban. These events explain why he is willing to risk Russian and Muslim anger by allowing US troops into Uzbekistan.

Mr Karimov said he was opposed to strikes on Afghanistan and would not allow US special forces to be deployed from his country. But he did agree to allow the US to use an airfield for humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations.

He said a legal document spelling out the specifics of the arrangement, including what he calls guarantees for his country's security, would eventually be made public. "We have no secret deals," he said.

The Uzbek government has long insisted that the world takes the terrorist threat more seriously. One week before the New York and Washington tragedies, it instructed Uzbekistan Airways to put its worldwide offices on heightened alert for possible hijackings.

In addition to 1,000 US soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who are now on their way to Uzbekistan, Hercules planes are said to have landed at military airports outside Tashkent and Karshi. Advance teams of specialists are reported to be preparing military facilities near Termez, on the border. Termez has been the launchpad for many ill-starred invasions, and, in 1989, Soviet troops limped home across the city's Friendship Bridge.

Mr Rumsfeld made his fleeting visit to Tashkent on the Muslim holy day. Dilshod, aged 22, was one of more than 1,000 worshippers at the city's main mosque, and he voiced the mixed feelings of many Uzbeks. "It is right to open our airbases to fight terrorists," he said. "These people use God's name but they have bad intentions, they are dirty inside. Yet there are many innocent people living in Afghanistan. The terrorists don't care about these innocent civilians. But the Americans must."

In Pakistan, an Islamic student like Dilshod might be burning an effigy of George Bush. But Dilshod wears blue jeans and a Nike jacket and doubts if an imam's salary will suffice when he graduates. "Some foreigners may think that Islam means terrorism," he said, "but it is not a ruthless religion, it is about peace."

The years of Soviet rule and religious persecution have accustomed most Uzbeks to a secular administration. Those who argue otherwise are quickly jailed. However, in Tashkent many people recall the horror of bombings in February 1999 that shattered the illusion of "stability", Mr Karimov's watchword and excuse for stalling political reform.

In the coming fighting, the Northern Alliance's new airfield is expected to transform the military balance between the opposition Northern Alliance and the Taliban. It will allow the 10,000 troops fighting on this front against the government in Kabul to receive military supplies directly from Russia, Iran and the US.

Until now the opposition has had to rely on a small fleet of elderly Russian helicopters to deliver arms and ammunition to their men quickly. Heavy equipment often has to be moved by trucks covering long distances over some of the worst roads in the world.

Some 600 workers and engineers using earth-moving equipment have already levelled the stony ground to build the runway, which is still incomplete, on the plain below the mountains outside Golbahar, a small town about 50 miles north of Kabul.